Category: Games

How the game of *Life* evolved

The game underwent numerous updates over the years. The early emphasis on money to determine the winner had been “indicative of what sold in that era,” George Burtch, the former vice president of marketing for Hasbro, which acquired Milton Bradley in 1984, said in a phone interview.

As times changed, so did the game, with players encountering midlife crises and being rewarded for good deeds, like recycling the trash and helping homeless people.

“Reuben was very receptive to the changes — in fact he was often the impetus for them — because he was a businessman,” Mr. Burtch said.

“He understood that the Game of Life was not just the game that he invented; it was a brand,” he added. “And for a brand to remain viable, it has to evolve. It has to reflect the market conditions of the time.”

But as Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker in 2007, the redesign teams always had a hard time addressing the fundamental criticism of the game — that the only way to reward a player for virtuous acts was with money: “Save an Endangered Species: Collect $200,000. Solution to Pollution: $250,000. Open Health-Food Chain: $100,000.”

And so the company’s 2007 overhaul, the Game of Life: Twists & Turns, was almost existential. Instead of putting players on a fixed path, it provided multiple ways to start out in life — but nowhere to finish. “This is actually the game’s selling point; it has no goal,” Ms. Lepore wrote. “Life is … aimless.”

That is from an excellent NYT obituary of Reuben Klamer, who invented the game of Life, in addition to numerous other achievements.

Gaming is coming to get us

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, the first part concerns culture, but here is the section on government regulation:

The self-contained nature of games also means they will be breaking down government regulation. Plenty of trading already takes place in games — involving currencies, markets, prices and contracts. Game creators and players set and enforce the rules, and it is harder for government regulators to play a central role.

The lesson is clear: If you wish to create a new economic institution, put it inside a game. Or how about an app that gamifies share trading? Do you wish to experiment with a new kind of stock exchange or security outside the purview of traditional government regulation? Try the world of gaming, perhaps combined with crypto, and eventually your “game” just might influence events in the real world.

To date the regulators have tried to be strict. It is currently difficult to build fully realized new worlds without creating something that is legally defined as an unregistered security. Those regulations don’t receive a lot of attention from the mainstream media, but they are rapidly becoming some of the most significant and restrictive rules on the books.

At the same time, regulators are already falling behind. Just as gaming has outraced the world of culture, so will gaming outrace U.S. regulatory capabilities, for a variety of reasons: encryption, the use of cryptocurrency, the difficulties of policing virtual realities, varying rules in foreign jurisdictions and, not incidentally, a lack of expertise among U.S. regulators. (At least the Chinese government’s attempt to restrict youth gaming to three hours a week, while foolhardy, reflects a perceptive cultural conservatism.)

Both the culture-weakening and the regulation-weakening features of games follow from their one basic characteristic: They are self-contained worlds. Until now, human institutions and structures have depended on relatively open and overlapping networks of ideas. Gaming is carving up and privatizing those spaces. This shift is the big trend that hardly anyone — outside of gaming and crypto — is noticing.

If the much-heralded “metaverse” ever arrives, gaming will swallow many more institutions, or create countervailing versions of them. Whether or not you belong to the world of gaming, it is coming for your worlds. I hope you are ready.

And the piece has a good footnote on how gaming relates to postmodernism.

Two brutal tests — can you pass them?

We all give people “tests” when we meet them, whether we are consciously aware of it or not.  Here are two of mine:

1. The chess test.  When I played chess in my youth, I would commonly analyze games with other players.  You would then rapidly learn just how much and how quickly the other player could figure out the position and see imaginative variations.  Some players maybe had equal or even inferior results to mine (I had a good work ethic and took no drugs), but it was obvious they were greater talents at analysis.  Top chess players who worked with Bobby Fischer also attest that in this regard he was tops, not just “another great player.”  That was true even before he was good enough and steady enough to become world champion.

When talking ideas with people, the same issue surfaces — just how quickly and how imaginatively do they grasp what is going on?  You should put aside whatever they have or have not accomplished.  How much do they have this Bobby Fischer-like capacity to analyze?  No matter what their recent results have been (remember how Efim Geller used to kick Fischer’s butt in actual games?).

2. The art test.  Take a person’s favorite genres of art, music, whatever.  But something outside of their work lives.  Maybe it can even be sports.  How deeply do they understand the said subject matter?  At what kind of level can they talk about it or enjoy it or maybe even practice it?

Remember in Hamlet, how Hamlet puts on a play right before the King’s eyes, to see how the King reacts to “art”?

Here we are testing for sensibility more than any kind of rigorous analysis, though the analysis test may kick in as well.  Just how deep is the person’s deepest sensibility?

If you are investing in talent, you probably would prefer someone really good at one of these tests over someone who is “pretty good” at both of them.

3. All other tests.

Now, people can be very successful while failing both “the chess test” and “the art test.”  In fact, most successful people fail both of these tests.  Still, their kinds of success will be circumscribed.  They are more likely to be hard-working, super-sharp, and accomplished, perhaps charismatic as well, while lacking depth and imaginative faculty in their work.

Nonetheless they will be super-focused on being successful.

I call this the success test.

Now if someone can pass the chess test, the art test, and the success test with flying colors…there are such people!

And if the person doesn’t pass any of those tests, they still might be just fine, but there will be a definite upper cap on their performance.

Against family and entourage?

Many individuals travel between countries as part of their professional routines. How do they perform during those short trips abroad? To begin to answer this question, I analyzed the outcomes of over 5 million chess games played around the world. Importantly, tournament chess provides a clean setting in which location-dependent factors are mostly irrelevant; the audiences are quiet and the referees make hardly any judgments. Controlling for differences in chess skills, I found enhanced performance among players who were competing outside of their home countries. This finding was robust to additional controls such as age, sex, and skill momentum or game practice, and to the inclusion of individual or country fixed effects. This advantage, an approximately 2% increase in game outcome, suggests that traveling has a positive effect on performance.

Here is the full paper by Uri Zak, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Who are the most rational people?

From John A. Doces and Amy Wolaver:

We examine the question of rationality, replicating two core experiments used to establish that people deviate from the rational actor model. Our analysis extends existing research to a developing country context. Based on our theoretical expectations, we test if respondents make decisions consistent with the rational actor framework. Experimental surveys were administered in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, two developing countries in West Africa, focusing on issues of risk aversion and framing. Findings indicate that respondents make decisions more consistent with the rational actor model than has been found in the developed world. Extending our analysis to test if the differences in responses are due to other demographic differences between the African samples and the United States, we replicated these experiments on a nationally representative analysis in the U.S., finding results primarily consistent with the seminal findings of irrationality. In the U.S. and Côte d’Ivoire, highly educated people make decisions that are less consistent with the rational model while low-income respondents make decisions more consistent with the rational model. The degree to which people are irrational thus is contextual, possibly western, and not nearly as universal as has been concluded.

Speculative, and not replicated, but the point remains of definite interest.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

A new chess variant

With Steven Brams, an American game theorist, Ismail devised a radical but easily implemented solution to the perceived white bias in chess. Their system, dubbed “balanced alternation”, allows black to make two moves after white’s opening move, with white then taking the next two moves before reverting to standard play.

By giving black a double riposte to white’s opening, Ismail argues that the imbalance would be sharply reduced and “render chess fairer than any other reform of which we are aware”.

…Other players questioned whether chess really needs to be fairer, given the number of draws at elite level. When AlphaZero played itself in last year’s experiment, 98 per cent of the games ended in draws. “More draws? What a bore!” said a leading chess writer.

Ismail acknowledged that the chess world “can be very conservative”. He added: “I do expect a backlash at a proposal like this, but I hope open-minded players will want to give it a try.”

Here is more from The Times of London (gated).  You will note that my pet proposal for reforming chess also introduces a kind of color equity, though it is not motivated by that goal.  To limit the import of opening preparation and to minimize the number of draws, we should randomize the initial opening moves, but within reason, with an average value clustered around 0.00, and with a focus on non-drawish lines.  So some games would start with 1.b4 d5, which is “playable” for White, though few players would move as such in a major tournament.  Most of the randomizations shoul be fairly sharp variations, and so the randomization would allow the Petroff and Berlin to surface only one out of every 768 games.

Chess grandmaster markets in everything

But for some players, securing a prestigious title meant more than just playing well. It is an open secret in chess that many players cut side deals with tournament organizers and other top competitors that help them achieve norms they might have struggled to get legitimately.

This culture touched the Momot club. Many of its members acquired their grandmaster credentials in Crimea, at tournaments in places like Sudak and Alushta that were known as “norm factories” — where, for as little as $1,000, organizers would make sure players accumulated enough points for a norm.

But there were other, more subtle, ways to succeed, too. Far from prying eyes, secret agreements and cash exchanges to arrange results were not uncommon, according to interviews with chess players and FIDE officials. In a sport so wholly obsessed with status, title and rank, even selling a game could be accomplished for the right price.

Mikhail Zaitsev, who achieved the rank of International Master and is now a chess coach, estimated that of the world’s roughly 1,900 living grandmasters, at least 10 percent have cheated one way or another to acquire the title. Shohreh Bayat, one of the leading arbiters in chess, describes such arrangements in the plainest terms. “Match fixing,” she said, “is cheating.” Some hopefuls didn’t even have to play a game of chess to get the points they needed: Some tournaments, she said, took place only on paper.

Here is more from Ivan Nechepurenko and at the NYT.

Which media have proven sticky as pandemic has diminished?

The single biggest new media habit to be formed during the pandemic appears to be gaming. The extra hour per week that people spent gaming last year represented the largest percentage increase of any media category. And unlike other lockdown hobbies, it is showing no sign of falling away as life gets back to normal. It has become “a sticky habit”, says Craig Chapple of Sensor Tower. He finds that last year people installed 56.2bn gaming apps, a third more than in 2019 (and three times the rate of increase the previous year). The easing of lockdowns is not denting the habit: the first quarter of 2021 saw more installations than any quarter of 2020. Roblox, a sprawling platform on which people make and share their own basic games, reported that in the first quarter of this year players spent nearly 10bn hours on the platform, nearly twice as much time as they spent in the same period in 2020.

And:

…whereas all other generations of Americans named television and films as their favourite form of home entertainment, Generation Z ranked them last, after video games, music, web browsing and social media.

Here is more from The Economist.

Better Crowdfunding

In 1998, I designed the “dominant assurance contract” (DAC) mechanism for producing public goods privately. In my latest paper, just published in GEB written with the excellent Tim Cason and Robertas Zubrickas we test the theory in the lab and…it works! Kickstarter hadn’t yet been created when I first wrote but the DAC mechanism can now be easily explained as a Kickstarter contract with refund bonuses. On Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites you contribute to a project and if a contribution threshold isn’t reached you get your money back. The Kickstarter contract is useful but it’s still easy for a good project to fail because there are many equilibria with non-funding. For example, if I think that you won’t contribute then I may decide not to contribute and if I don’t contribute then you may decide not to contribute. Neither of us can do better by contributing, given the other person is not-contributing, and so non-contributing is a Nash equilibrium (see my talk at the Foresight Institute for more details). Now introduce refund bonuses which pay out only if the threshold is not reached. Now if I think that you won’t contribute then I want to contribute, to earn the refund bonus, and the same is true for you. Indeed, the only equilibria in the crowdfunding game with refund bonuses have the project being funded. Thus, a nice feature of the refund bonus game is that in equilibrium the refund bonuses are never paid!

To test the theory we (mostly Tim and Robertas!) created an environment very similar to that faced by people on Kickstarter. Namely, there are multiple projects to choose from, each with different private payouts and each project has a contribution threshold and some projects offer refund bonuses. We test a variety of different types of refund bonuses including fixed (e.g. $10) and proportional e.g. (20% of your contribution) and also early refund bonuses (a refund bonus if the contribution threshold is not reached and you agreed to contribute in the first half of the funding period) or for contributions at any point in the game. Our research leads to three important conclusions.

First, without refund bonuses only ~30% of socially valuable projects succeed (perhaps coincidentally almost the exact same as on Kickstarter). But with refund bonuses the success rate increases by about 50% to 50- 60% and it doesn’t much matter much what type of refund bonuses are used!

Second, early refund bonuses have some useful properties. A key to the mechanism is that it quickly makes many contributors pivotal. At the beginning of the game it’s in no single individual’s interest to fund the public good but as others contribute there comes a time when the contribution necessary to push the total funding over the threshold is less than the value of the public good to the individual–thus, for purely self-interested reasons, a potential contributor can benefit by pushing funding just over the threshold. We say such contributors are pivotal. Early refund bonuses make contributors pivotal sooner and we think this gives people time to recognize that pushing funding over the threshold is in their interest. In addition, when more people contribute early this sends a signal of social cooperativeness which also appears important to fund public goods.

Third, refund bonuses pay for themselves! In theory, refund bonuses are never paid but in practice, as we have seen, some socially valuable projects fail even with refund bonuses. Nevertheless, for reasonable markups it’s still in an entrepreneur’s interest to use refund bonuses because the greater success rate more than pays for having to pay modest refund bonuses when a project fails.

We think refund bonuses can substantially improve crowdfunding and we hope to partner with a crowdfunding site to run a field experiment. Contact me if interested!

Read the whole thing.

Solve for the football culture equilibrium that is Mexican

Many fans shrug off accusations of homophobia and insist the chant is just a joke. “We do not scream at the goalkeeper because of his sexual preference, we don’t even care about it,” a YouTube commenter on a 2016 public-service video denouncing the chant wrote. “We shout to create chaos, because it is part of the atmosphere of a stadium in Mexico.”

For some, the chant merely illustrates wider homophobia in society.

Here is the proposal of an American academic:

“Convince fans that it brings bad luck to their own team,” Doyle said, “and this nonsense will stop.”

Now that’s a plan.  The actual (new) rule is to stop play if the chants become too extreme:

Nearly two years ago, FIFA approved a disciplinary code that allows referees to end matches if fans use chants or display behavior deemed to be homophobic or racist. However, because of COVID-19, Mexico’s national team has played few games in front of fans since the rules were adopted.

But when the team returns to the field May 29 to face Iceland in Arlington, Texas, Yon de Luisa, the Mexican federation’s president, said the new code will be strictly enforced.

If you are feeling just a bit generous in interpretation:

There is vigorous debate over whether the chant is offensive since the offending word is said to have many meanings in Spanish, one of which is a derogatory slur used to demean gay men.

Some countries should be just a bit more woke!

Can you call this a new service sector job?

Dave Taube has won a computer, a whitewater rafting trip, and several grills. There’s also the kayak, the powder-blue Coors Light onesie, and the Bruce Springsteen tickets. He recently took home $10,000 from Cost Plus World Market in its “World of Joy” sweepstakes. Recently, he found himself in the running for a trip to Antarctica, which would be the thirty-sixth vacation he’s won. His photo and caption, submitted in response to the prompt, “Tell us what you miss about international travel,” got enough votes to make the top 20. Next, the entries went to judging. In Taube’s photo, he’s slung with cameras and wearing safari duds, half-smiling, with a silver goatee. Strategically, he submitted his caption as a poem to make his entry distinct.

Taube, who is 65 and a decades-long resident of the Pacific Northwest, is a sweeper, a term that distinguishes the committed competitor from the casual, onetime entrant. Each day, he enters about 60 sweepstakes—which are random draws—and contests—which are judged.

And this:

Years ago, he entered a contest for “the most boring person in the Pacific Northwest.” He won a whitewater rafting trip, a plane ride, and a certificate for a tandem parachute jump. He sold the certificate.

He is producing…”contest liquidity”?  Publicity?  Contest legitimacy?  In any case he is paid for his labors, albeit in kind.  Here is the full story.

Maradona Plays Minimax

This paper tests the theory of mixed strategy equilibrium using Maradona’s penalty kicks during his lifetime professional career. The results are remarkably consistent with equilibrium play in every respect: (i) Maradona’s scoring probabilities are statistically identical across strategies; (ii) His choices are serially independent. These results show that Maradona’s behavior is consistent with Nash’s predictions, specifically with both implications of von Neumann’s Minimax Theorem.

From Ignacio Palacios-Huerta.

NFT virtual horse markets in everything

Is it simply that we have made gambling too much fun and too intriguing?  Or should we upgrade our view of the welfare consequences of gambling?:

On Zed Run, a digital horse racing platform, several such events take place every hour, seven days a week. Owners pay modest entry fees — usually between $2 and $15 — to run their steeds against others for prize money.

The horses in these online races are NFTs, or “nonfungible tokens,” meaning they exist only as digital assets….

“A breathing NFT is one that has its own unique DNA,” said Roman Tirone, the head of partnerships at Virtually Human, the Australian studio that created Zed Run. “It can breed, has a bloodline, has a life of its own. It races, it has genes it passes on, and it lives on an algorithm so no two horses are the same.” (Yes, owners can breed their NFT horses in Zed Run’s “stud farm.”)

People — most of them crypto enthusiasts — are rushing to snap up the digital horses, which arrive on Zed Run’s site as limited-edition drops; some of them have fetched higher sums than living steeds. One player sold a stable full of digital racehorses for $252,000. Another got $125,000 for a single racehorse. So far, more than 11,000 digital horses have been sold on the platform.

Alex Taub, a tech start-up founder in Miami, has purchased 48 of them. “Most NFTs, you buy them and sell them, and that’s how you make money,” Mr. Taub, 33, said. “With Zed, you can earn money on your NFT by racing or breeding.”

One implication here is that automation is never going to destroy all of the jobs.  Here is the full NYT story.